Understanding ableism: what is it & what are some examples of it?

Understanding ableism

As our collective consciousness becomes more progressive it’s important not to forget about another “ism” that is harmful to particular people. The word is ableism and, unfortunately, it permeates our daily activities and interactions. Let’s see into understanding ableism.  

That being said, many people haven’t heard of or don’t understand the concept, and this is where people easily fall back into ableism. People at disability centres in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and beyond are raising awareness about ableism, so let’s take a deeper look at what it is and what are examples of the problem.

What is ableism?

Ableism is the social prejudice and discrimination of a person or people living with a disbaility/disabilities. Ableism behaviours typically stem from the belief that the abilities of non-disabled people are superior to those of people living with a disability.

Ableism, like sexism and racism, classifies the disabled person as “less than” those people living without a disability. Ableism can include one or multiple of the following:

  • Generalisations about disabilities
  • Harmful stereotypes
  • Misconceptions

What forms does ableism come in?

Ableism can occur in a wide range of forms, including, but not limited to:

  • Failing to comply with Australian disability rights laws
  • Restraining or secluding students with disabilities as a means of controlling them
  • Keeping disabled students away from their schoolmates or moving them into another school
  • Segregating children and adults with disabilities into institutions
  • Failing to make new building designs accessible for disabled people
  • Buildings without braille on elevator buttons, signs etc.
  • Building websites that are inaccessible to disabled people
  • Mocking or ridiculing people living with a disability
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Does ableism come in everyday forms?

Everyday ableism is very common, and comes in the following forms:

  • Choosing a venue or meeting spot that is inaccessible to a disabled person
  • Framing disability as either a heroic or tragic story in media
  • Casting a non-disabled person to play a disabled person in a film, play, musical etc.
  • Taking the accessible bathroom when you can use the non-accessible bathroom without any problems/risks of injury
  • Making films, television shows etc. that don’t provide subtitles
  • Demeaning a disabled person or speaking to them like they are a child
  • Asking someone how they became disabled?
  • Asking about the extent of their condition

Ableism microaggressions

Microaggressions are common, daily behaviours that express an insult or slight against someone in relation to their disability, race, sex etc. In terms of ableism, the following are some examples of microaggression:

  • “That was really lame”
  • “Are you retarded?”
  • “That girl is psycho”
  • “That guy is so bipolar – one moment he is fine the next he is angry”
  • “I’m so OCD about cleaning”
  • “Take a chill pill”
  • “You must be off your meds”

Phrases like this imply that a person with a disability is less than someone living without a disability. Furthermore, it gives off the impression that one of those expressions is indicative of someone that needs changing or fixing. In this sense, these expressions are harmful and can cause harm to people living with a disability such, but not limited to: bipolar disorder, OCD, BPD, Down syndrome etc.

Naturally, most people don’t mean to be ableist, and certainly don’t go out of their way to harm someone living with a disability. However, it is the subtleties like microaggressions that perpetuate ableist behaviour and further the notion that people living with any form of disability are less than other people.

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Work continues to be done to eradicate microaggressions and larger forms of ableism in schools, workplaces, healthcare centers and beyond.

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